Traveling Amtrak’s Southwest Chief Across America

An Amtrak train crosses AmericaMany nights, as I fall to sleep at my home in Kansas City, I hear the whistle of trains as they come and go on their various routes. It’s a sound that piques my curiosity. Where are the trains going? Where have they come from? What adventures lie at the end of the line?

To answer to those questions, I found myself entering Kansas City’s Union Station one night after 10 p.m., ticket and backpack in hand, ready to board Amtrak’s Southwest Chief on its route from Chicago to Los Angeles. I have traveled across Europe, Canada and Japan by rail, but never in the U.S., and never in a sleeper car. 

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The Southwest Chief Route Across America

Route map of Amtrak's Southwest Chief across AmericaAmtrak’s Southwest Chief route is 2,265 miles that crosses through seven states in about 51 hours. In addition to Kansas City, the Chief stops in more than 30 cities, including Albuquerque New Mexico, Flagstaff Arizona and San Bernardino California. The route follows the path of the old Santa Fe Trail in places, climbs to more than 7,500 feet and crosses both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, the two longest rivers in North America.

Amtrak's Southwest Chief in New Mexico

You can get off and stand on a corner in Winslow Arizona, grab another train to the Grand Canyon or hang out with Marshall Dillon and Miss Kitty in Dodge City Kansas.

In places the train reaches nearly 100 miles per hour. At other times creeps through the canyons of northern New Mexico at about 20 miles per hour.



Sleeping Cars on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief

A roomette sleeping berth on Amtrak's Southwest ChiefAmtrak’s Southwest Chief offers five options for sleeping accommodations:

  • Roomette
  • Bedroom
  • Bedroom Suite
  • Family Bedroom
  • Accessible Bedroom

Since it was just me, I chose the roomette, which technically can sleep two.

Basically, it’s two over-sized seats that face each other with a small table in between during the daytime. At night, the seats slide together for one bed. A bunk folds down from the wall for another bed.

When I boarded in Kansas City at 10:45 p.m., my porter, Steve, already had my bed made up. Amtrak provided two pillows, but I’m glad I brought my own. Amtrak’s pillows were very thin. A sheet and light blanket were also provided, but I wish I had brought something heavier. Each roomette on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief has its own climate control, but I was still a little chilly. A washcloth and hand towel are also provided.

The Bedroom Suites and Family Bedrooms include a toilet and tiny, tiny shower. For others, a public shower on the lower level is as big as most home showers. Full size towels and bar soap are available. The door was open to one family bedroom as I walked through the train and it looked cozy and enjoyable.

My little roomette was just across the hallway from the toilet where I quickly washed my face and brushed my teeth. I crawled back into my space, pulled my sliding door and curtain closed, then snuggled into bed. It was really quite a cozy space.

Dining on the Southwest Chief 

Dining car on Amtrak's Southwest ChiefBy 7 a.m., announcements over the loud speaker told me that breakfast was ready in the dining car. Thanks to Steve, my porter, reservations had been made for me at the 8:30 seating. Dining space is limited, so you just can’t show up when you’re hungry. Reservations required. Each meal offered about five choices from sandwiches and soup to pastas and steak.

Because it was just me, I was assigned to a table of four with another solo traveler and a couple from the Baltimore area. They had never seen the southwest U.S. and were excited to visit the Grand Canyon for the first time. They booked a package that included transportation and overnight accommodations at the Grand Canyon. Theirs would be a two week round-trip adventure.

At lunch, I was seated with two elderly women from Philadelphia who were traveling to Los Angeles to visit a grandchild. They had spent much of their lives traveling by train and were delighted that this was my first experience.

Stops along the Southwest Chief’s Route

Observation car on Amtrak's Southwest ChiefMy stop was in Albuquerque where I planned to spend the night with a friend before catching the return Southwest Chief back to Kansas City.

As we arrived in ABQ, Native American vendors with tables filled with jewelry, pottery and blankets filled the platform around the station. Many passengers took advantage of the shopping opportunities there.

The first thing I noticed is that I swayed a little as I walked on terre ferma. I do that when I get off a cruise ship as well.

The Amtrak Station at Kansas City's Union StationAs I boarded the Southwest Chief for my return trip and found my little roomette, I felt like a veteran. I wandered around the train talking to people. I read quietly in my space and thoroughly enjoyed my time, and I slept like a rock. My porter gently knocked on my door about 6:30 a.m. to let me know we were nearing Kansas City.

As we arrived from the west, the sunrise illuminated Kansas City’s beautiful Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the sculptures atop the convention center, and of course, our beautiful Union Station that has been welcoming train travelers for more than 100 years.

I was home.

 For Your Train Trip Across America


Tip: If you love train stations and their architecture, check out the Amtrak Station in Wilmington Delaware.

Tip: If you’re a real fan of trains and the Southwest Chief, check out The Kingsley Inn in Fort Madison Iowa. Sit on your balcony and watch about 75 trains pass a day. Amtrak’s Southwest Chief passes through Fort Madison in its route across America. You can watch it live: